Abortion Rights Got Two Important Legal Wins Last Week

Decisions from federal courts in Kentucky and Virginia protecting abortion access could not come at a more crucial time for reproductive rights.

[Photo: One woman holds a pink sign that reads
A federal ruling means the last abortion clinic in Kentucky can remain open. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

A federal court in Kentucky on Friday struck back at conservative efforts to restrict abortion access, ruling as unconstitutional a state law requiring abortion clinics to have written transfer agreements with ambulance services and hospitals.

At issue in the lawsuit is a 1998 law that requires abortion clinics have “transfer and transport” agreements with a hospital and ambulance service in the event a medical emergency were to take place at the abortion clinic. 

Even though the regulations have been on the books for two decades, clinics like EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the state’s last remaining abortion clinic and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, had no difficulties maintaining that licensure requirement, according to court documents. But advocates claim that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has used the requirements as a tool to try to eliminate abortion access in the state. 

On Friday a federal court agreed.

“The court has carefully reviewed the evidence presented in this case and concludes that the record is devoid of any credible proof that the challenged regulations have any tangible benefit to women’s health,” Judge Greg Stivers wrote in his ruling. “On the other hand, the regulations effectively eliminate women’s rights to abortions in the state. Therefore, the challenged regulations are unconstitutional.”

“The challenged regulations are not medically necessary and do absolutely nothing to further the health and safety of women seeking abortions in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Stivers concluded. 

Friday’s decision means the last abortion clinic in Kentucky can remain open, though Bevin is expected to appeal the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Meanwhile, in Virginia a federal court last week ruled that a lawsuit challenging a similar series of Virginia anti-choice restrictions can move forward. 

Last week’s decisions came after two rulings to uphold anti-choice restrictions: a federal court of appeals ruled that Louisiana officials can enforce the state’s anti-choice regulation scheme, while a second appeals court vacated a lower court’s injunction against two Missouri abortion regulations nearly identical to those the U.S. Supreme Court struck as unconstitutional in its 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. 

The flurry of abortion-related federal court decisions happens as Republicans move to advance their embattled Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. If confirmed, he will be in a position to cast the fifth vote to eliminate legal abortion entirely. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday advanced Kavanaugh’s nomination along party lines and subject to a pending FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations as well as claims Kavanaugh may have lied under oath to committee members about his knowledge of those allegations.